A few days ago, news that Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement (specifically, that he was willing to return to directing a full-length feature) spread like a flash across the globe, igniting heated online discussions among anime fans.
The source is an NHK special program, Owaranai Hito: Miyazaki Hayao, aired on Sunday, November 13th, 2016. The program covers what the famed director has been up to since he announced his retirement two years ago. But what are Miyazaki’s real reasons for his decision? What motivates him to make such a commitment at this stage of his life?
Now that we have had a bit of time to reflect, let’s take a closer look and see if we can read between the lines of this intriguing piece of news.
Let us start by cutting to the chase and picking up on what the NHK special’s narrative appears to depict as the moment the fire re-ignited in Miyazaki’s heart to once again embark on the momentous task of tackling a feature-length production.
It is a scene at Studio Ghibli’s meeting room where he talks with Nobuo Kawakami, head of the media company Dwango–famous for Nicoico and the Japan Anima(tor) Exhibition. One of their projects is the Dwango Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
During the meeting, Kawakami and his team presented a series of clips of CGI render tests of grotesque, zombie-looking bodies, dragging themselves across the ground in a bizarre and uncomfortable fashion using their heads and elbows. The presentation was meant to show that if the user wanted the character to use his head to crawl along the ground, the AI in the computer could form an algorithm to calculate a realistic movement cycle for the way the other limbs and parts of the body would behave.
The result, of course, was disgusting to Miyazaki. He snapped back at them, telling them that they have no respect for life. “Anyone that can make something like this has not thought about pain,” he said, explaining how he has a friend who is disabled and it is a struggle to even perform a high-five together. At this point, Toshio Suzuki, Ghibli producer and long-time collaborator with Miyazaki, interjected and asked them, “What is it you want to do?” The response was to make machines which would be able to create animation just like a human.
The next sequence has Miyazaki lamenting that now that it’s clear there is no confidence left in humans, the end of the world is approaching. There then follows the scene which by this point is now infamous, having been reported in so many outlets, in which he presents to Suzuki a plan for a feature-length version of Kemushi no Boro, the short film he was working on. Suzuki asks Miyazaki to imagine what were to happen if he were to drop dead during the production, and a staffer off-camera quips, “Then it’ll be a sure-fire hit!” to which Miyazaki replies, “In that case, I have to die!”
Let us break this down, then. The original reason given for Miyazaki’s retirement is that he quit because he physically no longer had the strength to lead a staff of hundreds of people necessary to produce a full-length film.
What one would normally wonder upon hearing this, then, would be: Where are his successors? Surely he had considered someone to replace him? An apprentice to take over from the master?
Well, yes, there was someone. Namely, Yoshifumi Kondo, most famous for Whisper of the Heart (although many would have seen his work on The Wuzzles and The Blinkins before “anime” was mainstream in the US).
Japanese animation researcher and author of Miyazaki’s biography in English, Helen McCarthy, predicted this scenario way back in 1999 in her book, Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation: “…So far with the exception of Kondo, Ghibli has produced no heir to its traditions,” she writes. “The future may be secure in terms of its prestige and finance, but without dynamic new directors, Ghibli’s work will eventually come to a halt.” McCarthy knew this, and Miyazaki himself knew this.
Unfortunately, Kondo passed away very early on in 1998, the year of Princess Mononoke, and also the first year that Miyazaki announced he would retire.
Miyazaki insists he tried his best to raise a new generation of animators, but it didn’t work. The way he puts it, “the studio eats people up.” One interpretation is that he himself is the one doing this–as he trains them, he absorbs all the skills of the younger people so he becomes stronger as they become empty shells. If we subscribe to this theory, then the answer is simple: ultimately he had to leave and close up shop since there were no longer any successors, especially in the wake of Kondo’s passing.
But it seems that as he grew bored and dissatisfied with his more relaxed days after his “retirement,” he yearned for a schedule, a major goal to strive for. When asked for his motivation during the production of the Boro short film, he answered simply, “because doing nothing is boring. That’s all.” For feature-length movies, he longed for this driving force, but he resisted the commitment to it. As he puts it, “If I start now, and it takes five years, I’ll be eighty by the time it’s done. I can’t just say I want to make a movie simply on a whim. If my heart gives out, then it would cause major problems” for all of the people he gathered and motivated in the project. It would all be for nothing. So he was stuck in a dilemma. He wanted to work, but the dedication was too great for him to invest with his limited time on Earth. At the same time, the meaningless days passing by aimlessly was also not how he wanted to spend his days.
It took the recent news that Ghibli color director Michiyo “Yacchin” Yasuda passed away at 77 in October for him to realize that many of his friends and comrades are leaving him behind. This forced him to face the truth–if he is going to do something, he has to do it now. “It’s better to die while working than to die doing nothing.”
At this point, this isn’t about Ghibli anymore. This is about Miyazaki, and his own respect for life. If he cannot train young animators anymore, then this is his last attempt to do something and use them, to make people work for him. He has this strong willingness to realize his vision and he wants to make a grand exit without regrets. Life is too short.
It should not be forgotten that he and “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka were rivals. Both are stubborn but determined. Miyazaki wanted to prove that animation could be employed in different ways and didn’t like the limited animation techniques which Tezuka popularized. Tezuka, for his part, also tried to prove his relevance during the 1980s, his final decade, while some considered him out of fashion.
Now it seems like Miyazaki is out to prove that he will not be outdone, that computers and machines will not take over the creativity of the human, and that as long as he is alive, he will not restrain his creative spirit. For that is what separates him from the machines.
Top Photo Credit: Thomas Schulz detengase @ Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons